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Lessons from COVID-19: The Deficit of Trust

In 2013, I watched as people reacted to the release of classified documents by Edward Snowden. As someone with experience in the Intelligence Community but now on the outside as an advocate for openness and transparency in government, I found it interesting to see these responses weren’t based on the facts, which were few and lacking in important context, but were instead reflections on how each person felt about government. In this large gap of understanding, people projected their own fears and assumptions about government onto the issue in a great Rorschach test of public faith and confidence in those who govern us.

And this wasn’t a test government passed.

What became clear to me, as if it needed to be made clearer, was the lack of trust people placed in government. There has always been a lack of trust in the people we elect. That’s a legacy going back to our founding in revolt about the misadministration of the original Colonies and reinforced by numerous scandals of avarice, greed, and bad character throughout our political history. In this experience, however, I was noticing how the institutions themselves were suffering from a lack of trust as people attacked the very notion of national defense and intelligence gathering operating in the public interest.

There are a lot of reasons one can point to for this. Some will trace this back to the run-up to the War in Iraq and the misleading comments on Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. Others will cite the Ruby Ridge and Waco Siege standoffs where the federal government seemed to be using its overwhelming power to punish those who defied it. Others will go back to Watergate and the lack of trust in the Executive Branch to exercise power responsibly. Still others fault President Reagan in his first inaugural speech saying

Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.

For people of color, the legacy of government complicity if not active support of slavery and race-based oppression makes it almost impossible to believe in the good intentions of those who seem to rule over vulnerable populations with little accountability for their actions, including the use of deadly force.

Whatever incident resonates most, the reality is all of these and many more incidents have contributed to an erosion of trust in the very institutions charged with governing our society. We no longer implicitly accept that government actions are in the broad public interest, but assume they serve only the narrow interests of particular groups. We celebrate government action when we feel we are in that group and criticize when we feel the benefit goes to another group.

This lack of trust in government trickles down to all manifestations of governing, whether it is at the federal, state, county, or city level. Some scandal at the IRS reinforces the belief all government is incompetent. The inability of the Postal Service to deliver a package makes all government suspect in its ability to deliver what it promises.

And that’s where we have a problem.

Maybe it isn’t fair that local government agencies have to deal with the lack of trust in our federal government, but the reality is life isn’t fair and they have to deal with this. Simply saying, “Trust us, we know what we’re doing” is no longer sufficient and anyone who tries to do so will find a wall of resistance in the community. Even the well-meaning and committed public servants (and there are many) have to deal with a public that is primed by personal experience, prevalent social narratives, and/or mass media sensationalism to discount their good intentions and desire to serve the public good.

And as we’re learning now, even in a global pandemic, this deficit of trust has consequences in lives as citizens no longer trust their government leaders to give them good and reliable guidance they have confidence following.

So what’s to be done?

First of all, we have to recognize that trust is a commodity we accumulate over time by actions that earn us trust. This is no less true for government’s relationship with citizens than it is for individuals in relationship to each other. If we aren’t building trust, we’re losing trust, usually faster than we earned it.

Secondly, we have to engage in sincere and effective trust-building efforts. This means transparency and openness to all stakeholders, meaningfully engaging the various interests and needs to overcome resistance through discussion and compromise rather than steamrolling and marginalizing inconvenient voices in the community.

This means local tax offices have to work harder to prove they listen better than the IRS and are responsive to the needs of citizens. Local sanitation agencies need to work even harder to prove they aren’t the Postal Service and will do their job to collect the garbage when they promise and do so without leaving a trail of trash behind them.

More concretely, this should also look like:

  • the better use of technology to effectively engage the public in virtual conversations on key policies to better inform the debate and ultimate decisions of policymakers so people feel involved in the decisions that affect them
  • participatory, or at least open budgeting so citizens and other stakeholders can see how their tax money is being spent and the impact that spending has in their community
  • open bill markup so citizens can see how laws are being made and they can see who’s interests are being served
  • expanding the availability of open data to increase the accountability for how these laws are implemented and carried out with clear indicators of performance and effectiveness
  • consistent, broad-based community engagement in all mediums (online and offline) so it’s not the exclusive few with access to the levers of power

Thirdly, there must be a raising up of neutral third parties who can hold both government and the public accountable in interactions between them. Government leaders often resist oversight as an imposition on their rights and responsibilities, but in our age where the exercise of those rights and responsibilities is seen as suspect until proven innocent, they must accept and support not only the legitimacy, but the necessity for outside accountability as a means to build and maintain trust in the integrity of their actions.

Similar to what we experience in our personal lives when a trusted friend or therapist is needed to rebuild a relationship, so too governments need another branch of government, a citizen police oversight board, a non-governmental organization acting as data steward for open data, or some other non-governmental entity with the authority and integrity to provide effective and independent oversight all parties can have faith in.

Ultimately, this is a conversation about evolving the culture of government out of the hierarchical mindset of control and domination to one of genuine cooperation and engagement, facilitated by data sharing and technology, to build trust through internal transparency and external accountability.

This is also a conversation about evolving the culture of citizen engagement from one that sees things as black and white, good and bad, to one that understands the operation of government is messy, with good people trying to balance difficult decisions with little information and few resources.

While there are bad actors, there are also a greater number of well-meaning but flawed human beings apt to make mistakes while trying to do what is right. We all benefit when the bad actors can be identified and removed, while the well-intentioned can be guided into making better decisions within a structure that supports initiative, experimentation, cooperation, and reflection.

As we’ve seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, trust lost in relatively good times doesn’t come back in times of crisis, and the lack of trust in authority leads people to panic. Whether it is buying up all the toilet paper and hand sanitizer or refusing to wear masks and physically distance, this deficit of trust undermines the well-meaning effort to stop a deadly virus targeting the most vulnerable from ravaging our communities.

And as we’ve seen in the sometimes violent protests over the killing of people of color by police around the country, a lack of trust in the police departments charged with keeping our communities safe has consequences in lives and property. This legacy won’t be turned around in a day, especially not in the context of raging anger in a hurting community.

But a police force that puts the hard work into examining and changing their internal culture, becoming more transparent in their actions and activity, engaging the community to make meaningful allies with those they police, and making all of these changes obvious to everyone they encounter may just find their job of policing made much easier.

Changing the conversation from “us against them” to “us with them” may make those protesters partners instead of adversaries in the struggle for better services so police officers aren’t providing mental health counseling, homeless services, and conflict mediation while also solving rapes, robberies, and murders. No one wants social chaos, but enforcing the laws for criminals has to be done by a police force that obeys the laws themselves.

George Carlin is famously quoted as saying

Inside every cynical person is a disappointed idealist.

I wonder how much animosity we feel towards government comes from this disappointment in our idealism that government could be a solution to our problems, that it was infallible and trustworthy in all things, particularly in times of personal and collective need.

While government can’t be perfect, it can be better as it learns to treat more carefully the cultivation of trust and learn undermining that trust in any situation has an impact in all situations. Hopefully we as citizens will also learn to not expect perfection, but still demand a high bar of accountability and transparency in how government operates, granting trust where it is earned and learning again to have faith in the ability of government at all levels to serve the public interest of all Americans.

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